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Healdsburg Jazz Festival Founder Jessica Felix Announces Retirement 

click to enlarge Jessica Felix, pictured here in 2017, is stepping down from her role as artistic director of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. - RORY MCNAMARA
  • Rory McNamara
  • Jessica Felix, pictured here in 2017, is stepping down from her role as artistic director of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.

After more than two decades of booking and directing the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, Jessica Felix has announced her retirement effective at the end of September.

Felix first formed the festival in 1999, focusing her extensive experience in booking jazz bands throughout Northern California on the small North Sonoma County town.

In addition to bringing the world’s foremost jazz musicians to the region for the annual summertime Healdsburg Jazz Festival, Felix also sponsored numerous music education programs in Healdsburg schools and presented masterful concerts throughout the year.

Now, Felix is ready to pass the reigns of the festival on to a new generation of jazz fans, and plans to spend her retirement traveling and returning to her work in jewelry-making.

“I love this music deeply and feel very proud of the vast and diverse array of incredible artists I have presented over the years, bringing many to the West Coast for the first time,” Felix says. “It’s time to be in the audience. It’s time to just enjoy my life.”

As the head of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, Felix connected the town through music in times both good and bad, facing financial challenges and natural disasters with perseverance and a collaborative spirit that involved the whole town; from the vineyards to the restaurants, hotels, bars, schools and citizens, many of whom became festival volunteers or provided financial support, and some of whom offered up their guest homes to musicians.

With that support network in place, Felix feels confident that the festival will continue without her running the show.

“I have a strong board and staff, and with my artistic director successor—who we’ll be announcing soon—the festival will flourish,” she says.

Drummer Billy Hart, who holds the record for Healdsburg Jazz Festival appearances at 14, says that the festival’s success is due to Felix’s ability to make him and other touring musicians feel like family.

“Healdsburg festivals were around the time of my daughter’s birthday, so Jessica made sure the whole family came up. And she would come by to help us celebrate. You have to understand that being a touring musician puts a strain on families,” Hart says in a statement. “So being able to have your family with you is a special thing. And it wasn’t just me she did that for. Plus, she would find these beautiful homes for us to stay in, peoples’ second homes, where we could have privacy. And had restaurants that gave us great food.”

In addition to hospitality, Felix is an innovative music booker with a deep knowledge of the art form.

“Jessica sort of loves the music like a musician loves it,” Hart says in his statement. “She has some kind of way of communicating with us that shows she understands the creative aspects of what we’re doing. That makes her important to musicians, especially improvising musicians. It makes her very important to me.”

Felix has also earned a reputation as a fierce advocate for the music and the festival.

“Jessica is a warrior,” jazz flutist James Newton says in a statement. “She fights for the music, and ‘no’ is rarely in her vocabulary. You need people like that.”

That advocacy continued up until this summer, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 Healdsburg Jazz Festival. Instead of sitting the summer out, Felix led a team to create an entire online program of music and educational offerings including Zoom classes on important jazz figures, listening parties and more. For more information on these programs, visit the festival's website.

Former festival board member Gloria Hersch sums up Felix’s lasting impact on the North Bay by saying, “Jessica brought the musicians to Healdsburg, but she also brought Healdsburg to the musicians.”

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